Preparing kids for the path ahead: the ‘Snowplow’ vs the ‘Dolphin’ approach

Snowplow, helicopter, lawnmower: what do all these terms refer to? Believe it or not, they all refer to forms of parenting brought to light in the aftermath of the recent college bribery scandal in the USA (read the article). ‘Snowplow’ parents (or ‘curling’ uders, as they are known in Dutch) are defined as, "machines chugging ahead, clearing any obstacles in their child's path to success, so they don't have to encounter failure, frustration or lost opportunities." Helicopter parents hover overhead. There’s a fine balance to be sought between being supportive and engaged vs being controlling or trying to engineer outcomes. As mentioned in our previous post on strengths, handling challenges is a predictor of adult success. If the snowplow approach prevents kids from facing obstacles and experiencing challenges or failure, perhaps being present and engaged (but not clearing the way of challenges) would be a better option?

For me, the concept of ‘dolphin parenting’ (link-The Dolphin Way: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids Without Turning Into a Tiger.), as promoted by Harvard psychiatrist Dr Simi Kang, makes sense and resonates as an antidote to snowplowing. Dolphins are sociable animals. Dolphin parents have rules and expectations but also value autonomy, creative pursuits, communication skills, and critical thinking. Dolphin parents focus on maintaining balance in their children’s lives and gently yet authoritatively guide, as opposed to clearing obstacles out of the way. As children grow up, dolphin parents gradually encourage them to make decisions for themselves. As a result, the kids of dolphin parents are self-confident and self-motivated. Dolphin parents tread a middle ground between authoritative and overly permissive parents. Not always easy to achieve but an exciting model to consider.

In the meantime, in order to avoid taking on the full-on snowplow approach, here are some suggestions from a recent piece.

1. Demonstrate understanding when your teen experiences a setback or failure. Talk about what could have been done differently and what a backup plan might look like. “So, you didn’t make the swimming team. You can try again next season if you put practice and work hard. How can I help?”

2. If your child forgets their homework or sports gear, don’t jump to help them out by calling the school or rushing to practice (I admit this one is tough, having brought sports gear to soccer practice on more than one occasion). In other words, don’t constantly intervene. Let them cope with the small failures and work with you on how to improve their organizational skills. For example: we have a checklist we use every night and in the morning. It’s not perfect, but it does help us out a lot.

3. For older kids, try not to micromanage your teen’s high-school career with the single goal of getting them into a dream school or job. Be supportive and realistic about their achievements and ambitions and realize there’s a wide range of choices one can take.

Bottom line: It’s tough to be a parent these days. Being aware of issues they might face, having open communication and working in tandem with teens – rather than pushing obstacles away – can go a long way. Help your teen to learn how to problem solve instead of problem solving for them.